#SWDchallenge: education, color, and words

Throughout my life, I’ve known February to be Black History month. Interestingly, though, that’s simply on account of my age, as this year marks only the 43rd year we celebrate and recognize African American achievements in the US and Canada—achievements that took place against a backdrop of inequalities and often injustices politically, economically, and socially. For me, I believe that one of the most important pillars to ensuring access and opportunity for all (as well as ending ignorance and racism) is education.

To raise awareness and celebrate Black History Month, storytelling with data is collaborating with data.world, Tableau Public, #MakeoverMonday, Viz for Social Good, and Data for Democracy to ignite the imaginations and talents of our respective community members around the datasets and data stories connected to Black History. Each week’s focus is on a different sub-topic. I’ve decided to make this month’s #SWDchallenge to be centered on education, specifically the access, benefits, opportunities, and ignorance-curbing power. Create a visual with this in mind and let’s use data to recognize the importance—today perhaps more than ever before—of education in our society.

Your work doesn’t stop there. Last month, the challenge was to create an annotated line graph (nearly 90 people shared their creations!). I felt that singling out a graph type here would be too limiting, however (we’ll come back to that in future challenges). Rather than dictate a type of visual, this month we will put into practice a specific tip I find myself giving often when it comes to creating effective visual stories: be thoughtful in your use of color and words.

This may sound like simple advice. It is, I suppose, but there are nuances and the impact of these two straightforward elements executed well can be huge—and can even help overcome other design issues. Let’s talk a bit more about each of these.

Color, used sparingly, is one of your most strategic tools when it comes to the visual design of you data stories. Consider not using color to make a graph colorful, but rather as a visual cue to help direct your audience’s attention, signaling what is most important and indicating where to look. Note that for this to be effective, the use of color must be sparing. If we use too many colors, we lose the ability to create sufficient contrast to direct attention.

Words used well will both ensure your visual is accessible as well as indicate to your audience what you want them to understand in the data. There are some words that must be there: every graph needs a title and every axis needs a title (exceptions will be rare!). Don’t make your audience work or make assumptions to try to decipher what they are looking at. Beyond that, think about how you can use words to make the “so what?” of your visual clear. I advocate use of a “takeaway title”—meaning, if there is something important that you want your audience to know (there should be), put it in the title so they don’t miss it. Also, when your audience reads the takeaway in the title, they are primed to know what to look for in the data. When I’m putting a graph on a slide, I’ll use the slide title for the takeaway (and put a descriptive title on the graph). When the graph is on its own, I’ll often title with both—typically “descriptive title: takeaway.”

As illustration, below is an example. Here, I’ve shown the progression (no need to do this for your challenge, you can simply share the final product) from base graph, then added color, and finally words. Notice how we immediately know what to look for and where to look in the final graph.

Education color words.png

To recap the #SWDchallenge: find some data of interest related to education (you have free range within this: academia, higher education, black scholars, access, how education has helped ensure progress and opportunity, etc.). Data.world has curated a short list of datasets, or you can find even more in this list of publicly available data. Analyze the data to determine the specific story you’d like to tell. Harness the power of color and words to create your visual story. DEADLINE: Wednesday, 2/14 by noon PST. Specific submission details follow.


  • Make it. Identify your data and create your visual with the tool of your choice. If you need help finding data, check out this list of publicly available data sources.
  • Share it. Email your entry to SWDchallenge@storytellingwithdata.com by the deadline. Attach your image as a .PNG. Put any commentary you’d like included in my follow up post in the body of the email (e.g. what tool you used, any notes on your methods or thought process you’d like to share); if there’s a social media profile or blog/site you’d like mentioned, please embed the links directly in your commentary (e.g. Blog | Twitter). If you’re going to write more than a paragraph or so, I encourage you to post it externally and provide a link or summary for inclusion here. Feel free to also share on social media using #SWDchallenge and #VisualizeDiversity and/or upload to the data.world page.
  • The fine print. I reserve the right to post and potentially reuse examples shared.

I look forward to seeing what you come up with. Thank you for helping to celebrate Black History Month and the importance of education in our society. Stay tuned for the recap post!

Check out the #SWDchallenge page for all of the monthly challenges and recaps.